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Blowing Smoke Illustration by Carolyn Figel.

Blowing Smoke

How Lost’s creators couldn’t write themselves off the island.

CONSIDER THE DOG. A plane crashes on a deserted island. Screams and the smell of jet fuel fill the air. In the middle of the wreckage, a man is impaled by a piece of fuselage. A few hundred feet away, Vincent the dog stands above a groggy Jack Shephard, MD, before running off into the jungle. The good doctor comes to his senses, rushing into the chaotic scene to do what good doctors do: save a handful of people, act as a beacon of hope, make eyes at a pretty woman. Days pass and the rag-tag group sets up camp, attempting to survive the elements and each other—not to mention a mysterious monster that lurks out of sight in the jungle, popping up intermittently to rip trees from the ground and eviscerate a pilot. The survivors become desperate: they want to be saved; they want to be comforted; they want answers about what is happening on this godforsaken island full of disembodied voices and native inhabitants who have a penchant for kidnapping children and pregnant women. Meanwhile, the dog plays catch, munches on fruit and goes for walks with his owner. The dog doesn’t drive himself mad, barking into the void and demanding answers for everything that is happening. The dog just sits back and chases its own tail.

Lost was wonderful at first—so full of promise. At its core, the show was a soap opera, focusing on the melodrama between the characters. The story had all the addictive interpersonal theatrics of The OC and was elevated to a new level by taking place in a bizarro wonderland where anything could happen. Watching the original run on television, each week was a new revelation: the island has magical healing powers! The monster is a cloud of black smoke! There is a man living in an underground hatch who must push a button every 108 minutes to prevent the end of the world!

All of these plot points sound strange to the uninitiated, but for viewers, these were revelations. Better yet, they were believable in the show’s context. For the first three seasons, it didn’t feel as though JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof created the world of Lost, it felt like they discovered it. Nothing in its universe, fans trusted, existed just because. Much like the show’s John Locke (a religious foil to Dr. Jack’s “man of science”), viewers were consistently told that there was a reason for everything that was happening. Every character name, every cultural reference had a deeper meaning. There was always supposed to be a greater purpose.

LOST RAN FOR SIX YEARS, and for many viewers (present company included), spending nights wading through internet message boards looking for missed clues and fan theories was as enjoyable as watching the show itself. As the months passed, the drip drip drip that characterized the show’s narrative never let up. By raising the curtain slightly each week, only to immediately yank it back down, the show became un-missable. (The concept of a pleasurable slow burn has since been killed by the convenience and gluttony of binge-watching. I guess we can’t have it all.) It seemed as though, with enough thought and concentration, viewers would be able to crack Lost’s code.

The show was great when it was setting up these questions. By offering glimpses of a fantastical world, but keeping everything just out of sight, it allowed the audience to project their desires onto the blank slate of the island. Most of the fan theories felt unfulfilling, too easy, too obvious: the characters are dead, and the island was some sort of purgatory; they were all stuck in some dream world or hallucination; the survivors somehow travelled through time.

Like prophets, the creators would occasionally step down from their mountain and impart some knowledge on the masses. “There are no spaceships. There isn’t any time travel,” Lindelof said in one early interview. In another, he denied that the characters were all dead. While the series offered glimpses of the paranormal and the mythical, Lindelof stressed that its universe was cemented in science. “I don’t think we’ve shown anything on the show yet that has no rational explanation in the real world that we all function within,” he said. That is what set Lost apart from other science fiction: we were told that this wasn’t going to be solved by a deus ex machina. No, the creators assured us, this show is based in reality; despite the weirdness, it is only a puzzle. It was supposed to be solvable.

EXPLAINING THE FIRST THREE SEASONS OF LOST to a friend may make you sound strange, but not crazy. But by season four, the plot started to sound like gobbledygook. As the show entered its middle years, its creators had a choice: start offering some explanations, or double down on the enigmas. The writers went all in.

Major questions raised at the beginning of the series remained unanswered for the most part, and new plot devices veered into the absurd. Abandoned laboratories scattered throughout the island created by an entity called the DHARMA Initiative were one thing. But a mysterious ancient ice wheel buried underground that could teleport a rather large land mass to places unknown was another altogether. So much for sticking to “the real world that we all function within.” The island demanded a sacrifice, and the writers offered up reason. 

The Jenga tower of mysteries was stacked too precariously, and it eventually started to tumble. Remember when Lindelof denied theories of time travel? Now, some of our heroes became unglued in time (because of the aforementioned ice wheel, of course). The show tried to keep some connection with the “science” in science fiction by introducing the twitchy Daniel Faraday, a physicist who explained their predicament by comparing the island to a record that is skipping (of course!). We may have received a more technical explanation had Mr. Smarty Pants not been shot to death by his own mother—years before his birth, mind you. 

But fans received a glimmer of hope during the finale of Lost’s penultimate season, in the form of Jacob, a mysterious figure often spoken of but, until now, never seen. Many viewers believed this was it: the character who would answer the fundamental questions of the show. 

And as the final season progressed, we did finally get our answers; they just weren’t the answers we’d signed up for. Jacob was far from a reasonable, thoughtfully written character with reasonable, thoughtfully written answers. No, he was a Christ-like magic man who ran the island to settle a millennia-old wager with his dark-haired brother— who also happened to be the Smoke Monster—about whether humans are inherently good or evil. (If only we had guessed it during season one, how blind we were!) Long story short, blond Jesus is stabbed to death at the behest of his Judas-like brother, but like the Bible says, it was all for a greater plan to save the world. Throw in a parallel timeline/ universe (which turns out to be a sort-of-purgatory), a supernatural lighthouse that sees through space and a big ol’ stone plug in a light cave that was the “heart of the island” (whatever the fuck that means) and ta da! You have your answers. It was as if the writers trolled the message boards and picked the most ridiculous fan theories. And since it is hard to look away from a car crash, we all just sat there and watched.

While the hint of the paranormal had been a part of Lost since day one, we were promised that the writers wouldn’t take the easy way out, that the story wouldn’t boil down to the great non-answer of “it was magic.” But then, after nearly one hundred hours of storytelling, personal investment, countless conspiracy theories and comment threads, that was all we were left with.

Crafting a satisfying close for stories that have gone on for years is a Herculean task, but what hurt about Lost wasn’t the weak finish, it was the feeling of being lied to. Forget the truth about Santa Claus. Forget religion. Those lies I can sympathize with. But with Lost it felt malicious. At its outset, the show promised to be more than a typical soap opera. It promised an amazing world of storytelling with reasonable answers that anyone could uncover—or at least comprehend. It promised enlightenment, literature-as-television. But it never delivered. There was no master plan, no greater meaning to anything that happened over those six years. There was only a handful of exhausted, overworked writers somewhere in California who were chasing their tails the whole time.